Category Archives: Teaching methodology

Learner generated content:how to get your students to do the work instead!

Picture by @purple_steph on ELTPics

Picture by @purple_steph on ELTPics

To start this summary of the ELTChat on Learner-generated content, which took place at 12pm on 16th January 2013, I’d like to include this extended quote from a seminal article by Adrian Underhill, writing in the late 80s. @theteacherjames found the link, and commented that it had been a huge early influence on him.

Most teachers invite students to write stories and dialogues. Well, why not take their creations one step further and use them as the basis for all the types of elaboration, consolidation and practice which at the moment is done using the coursebook material? Instead of processing material written by someone else they can create their own material based on what they want to say and what they are able to say.

This yields two over lapping phases. Creation, which roughly corresponds to what the author usually does, and Exploitation, which roughly corresponds to the things we usually do with a coursebook.

So, If we want a dialogue we write it,

If we want a text we write one,

If we want a picture we draw one,

If we want a tape we make one,

If we want questions we write them,

If we want an exercise we construct one,

If we want to work with vocabulary we put ourselves in the position of needing it,

If we want a dictation we write one, or choose it from the reader,

If we want a role play we improvise it, or else we plan and write the parts.

If we want answers, we turn to resource books, especially the monolingual learners’ dictionary,

And if we need published text or tape material, then we find it.

We take this raw material and negotiate its correctness, we hone it and refine it, practise it, record it, tell it, act it out, draw it, summarise it, extend it, transform it, improvise it, and so on. In all of this there is a workshop atmosphere. with our own everyday life events and interests as the source material.’

http://www.thornburyscott.com/tu/underhill.htm

Working towards a definition

The chat began by sharing how we might define learner/student generated/created content (settling on the terminology was a challenge in itself!)

@teflerinha For me, LGC is about getting learners to do as much of the work as possible (not in a lazy way)

@AlexandraKouk: also involves creativity and choice of topics, content etc. To which @Marisa_C commented So ss choose topic and content?  @theteacherjames responded I suppose we could use almost anything from the students with some creativity. @AlexandraKouk replied they can vote for topics, of course, or decide what kind of materials format they’d prefer.

@efl101 Isn’t student generated content anything sts do, say, write etc.?

@pjgallantry LGC can range from sentence -level and upwards to full-blown modules – depends on lesson focus.

There was some discussion about how far the term could be stretched:

@Marisa_C For example – would showing a S’s written work and generating some language awareness work fit the bill ? or not?

@efl101 Isn’t student generated content anything sts do, say, write etc.?

@Florentina_T Anything that the student can contribute to the class as a _person_ rather than a unidimensional learner ?

@majorieRosenbe I have created worksheets based on the mistakes that come up on tests.  Does that count?

And there seemed to be some crossover with other concepts such as learner- centredness:

@OUPELTGlobal There’s something about SGC that places the student in the role of the teacher – ? I think SGC brings the learning back to the student, using the language they are learning to communicate about them to others

@AlexandraKouk replied , the roles are not so clearly delineated: everybody teaches and learns at the same time

@yitza_Sarwono also saw similarities with the Montessori context in which she teaches.

@Marisa_C also pointed out the crossover with TBL.

Benefits and drawbacks

It was generally agreed that LGC has many benefits for learners, and teachers:

@shaunwilden So benefits include motivation, learning from each other….anything else?

@teflerinha Less preparation time?!

@Florentina_T All students know something that the T and other Ss can learn (from). Sharing in the L2 builds ownership and fluency

@AlexandraKouk Developing creativity and critical thinking skills?

@yitza_Sarwono Giving learners confidence and voice?

@OUPELTGlobal  Agreat benefit for me is that sts pay more attention to the language they use as they are communicating to friends

@theteacherjames One of the benefits of LGC is that it gives an extended life to the material that students will be possibly producing anyway

@teflerinha Lessons in FE context in UK (where I teach now) are usually 3 hours- so at least element of LGC very helpful

However, there were some downsides too:

@shaunwilden A teacher needs to be at the top of their game to handle LGC, don’t they?..you don’t know where you might end up.

@teflerinha If students don’t produce much, then you don’t have much to work with #lessonplandownpan

@debzi_f have to be careful with sgc that other students don’t just focus on negatives of peers though

@jankenb2 wondered if some schools might not like SGC, though @efl101 responded would hope most schools would not object to sts creating things?

@efl101, OUPELTGlobal  and @Marisa_C agreed that LGC might work well as something to add onto a core cyllabus rather the necessarily providing the syllabus.

@shaunwilden wondered Are all sts happy to work with LGC isnt there an expectation of the teacher leading and telling them what to do?  But @teflerinha felt it’s about the content rather than the methodology isn’t it? And @theteacherjames commented The teacher will still be telling them what to do: Produce material  and then do something else with it.

Towards the end of the chat, the topic shifted towards feedback, but as this is a possible topic for next week, I won’t include it here.

Examples of Learner Generated Content Activities

The Language Experience Approach is one example of how to create and exploit learner-generated content.

@Marisa_C When I taught advanced ss in the past i used to get them to write stuff/ projects for lower levels – can done with other levels too @yitza_sarwono I usually get them to do booklet of selected topic in a month’s time

@michaelegriffin I love bringing something out the next week/class- @teflerinha Yes, shows you’ve paid attention to what they’re producing.- @michaelegriffin Exactly…and I think it tends to have a carry over for next time because Ss know that things will be re-used… And related is using something from loooong ago….and hopefully Ss can see clear progress

@kevchanwow I like to take the funniest sentence, deepest sentence, etc of the week and put them on handout for the class.

@majorie_rosenbe We created cooperative crosswords on vocab for other classes to solve. Great exercise and practice.

@teflerinha  Before students read a text, give them the comprehension questions and as them to write their own text using the questions as a guide. They can then read each others’ texts and answer the questions, before they start on the original text. Finally they can make comparisons between their texts and the original.

@kevchanwow When I have Ss summarise texts, one step in the process is generating questions for each other which I then use as comp check questions

OUPELTGlobal I have my students make wordsearch puzzles for a reading text. Then, give it to a friend to solve – student reading text 2x

@majorie_rosenbe Just gave HW to write 6 questions for others on material coming on test, then played snakes and ladders with the questions.

@theteacherjames Quick example (1:1 Bus Eng): St gives presentation, recorded, watch the video back & analyse their own performance. Self feedback

@Marisa_C On an English for Teachers course we used Pecha Kuchas – each presenter responsible for Qs to audience while listening @Majorie_Rosenbe added We are holding session on how to use Pecha Kucha in classroom at BESIG PCE in Liverpool at IATEFL.

@jankenb2 If you have access to a course page ask Ss for Youtube to preview a wk prior. Assign selected to Ss pair to generate novel lang exp. Also suggested Giving ss a rubric for a writing task, e.g. “write an invite to a party include time, place, location & welcome note” and asking them to write 3 answers: a good one, a satisfactory one, and one that needs more work.

Links and Further Reading

There are three main books that I know of with specifically learner-generated ideas, though of course Teaching Unplugged is along very similar lines.

Lessons from the Learner: Shelagh Dellar- Longman

Learner-based teaching- Campbell and Kryszewska- OUP

The Minimax Teacher- Jon  Naunton-DELTA Publishing

All three of these are written in the ‘recipe book’ format, and are useful additions to a teacher’s library.

A link to an article by @ddeubal  on student created content was offered by @michaelegriffin

http://ddeubel.edublogs.org/2010/04/27/student-created-content-its-about-learning-not-teaching/

Also a link to the ESL Learners Output Library, a forum for sharing work ESL students produce. http://www.esllol.org/

@AlexandraKouk suggested this article which looks at LGC taking webtools into account http://learnonline.wordpress.com/2006/03/13/learner-generated-content-or-the-best-way-to-learn-is-to-teach/

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, ELT Chat summaries, Teaching methodology

Collaborative writing activities

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Collaborative writing

Some teachers tend to avoid writing in class, perhaps feeling that as it is something which learners do individually and in silence, it is better done for homework.

However, when writing is done as a collaborative activity, it can have many of the same benefits of a group speaking activity:

Discussing the writing process obviously provides more opportunities for learners to interact in English, a benefit in itself.

It can also help learners to develop their communicative competence by forcing the negotiation of meaning. As learners try to express their ideas to each other, they will have to clarify, rephrase and so on. The process should also help them to actually develop their ideas.

According to Vygostsky’s theory of ZPD (zone of proximal development),  working with others  can provide the opportunity for learners to work at a level slightly above their usual capacity, as co-operating with others who know a little more can boost achievement.

Collaborative writing has been shown to lower anxiety and foster self-confidence, compared with completing tasks individually (Johnson and Johnson 1998)

Research by Storch, found that texts produced by pairs were shorter than those produced individually, but that they were better  ‘in terms of task fulfilment, grammatical accuracy and complexity.’ It appeared that the process of working together meant that learners were giving each other useful feedback as they went along, and thereby producing more accurate and complex texts. [Incidentally, I plan to look at feedback on writing in a future post]

Collaborative writing can also be a lot of fun, and, with the growth of webtools for collaboration (not my personal expertise!), it is becoming increasingly popular.

Planning collaboratively

Planning is usually an important part of a successful writing process (though ‘free’ writing has its place). Even if students are to go on to write individually, planning together can be very motivating. It tends to work best if the process is given some kind of structure, so that the group is not simply staring at a blank sheet.

In terms of getting ideas, I love this activity from Learner based Teaching. Students are preparing to write about a topic they know a lot about, such as a hobby or their job. They write the topic at the top of a piece of paper, then, sitting in a circle, the pieces of paper are passed round clockwise. Students have to read each topic and add a question about it, making sure that they don’t duplicate any questions. When the paper comes back to its original author, they then have to write a text which answers ALL the questions, organised in a logical way. The texts are then displayed with the questions and see how they question was answered, asking for clarification if necessary.

One of my favourite activities for collaboratively planning academic type essays is to start by brainstorming the topic onto a mind-map on the board, or use a mind-mapping tool. For example, in describing a festival in your country, you might have sections for dress, food, music and so on.

Then stick a Cuisenaire rod of a different colour onto each section of the mind-map. Of course, you could use coloured strips of paper, but I like Cuisenaire rods… Next, put the students into smallish groups and give each group a set of rods in the same colours. They can then use the rods to decide or to order and arrange the topics within the essay. It’s a simple idea, but there is something about the tactile nature of the rods that seems to help with planning. It’s also concrete, rather than abstract.

Writing collaboratively

The first activity that came to my mind when thinking about collaborative writing was the time-honoured circle writing activity. One student writes a line, then passes it on to another who writes the next line and so on. I have to admit that I am not actually very keen on this activity. It can have some amusing outcomes, but I wonder what exactly the students are learning, as the process rarely produces a coherent or cohesive outcome.

One activity of this sort that I do like, however, is Genre Circle Writing, which I originally found in The Minimax Teacher. This works beautifully with more advanced learners who have been learning about the features of different genres. Start by brainstorming different types of narrative genres, such as news article, romance, conversation, fairytale, sci-fi. Ask each student to choose a genre they would like to write in and ask them to think about the features of their genre, e.g. typical vocabulary and fixed expressions, register, word and sentence length. Put the students into groups of 5-6, then ask each of the to write the first paragraph of a narrative in their genre. After an agreed time limit they pass the papers clockwise, read the new story and write the next paragraph, but in their own genre, rather than following the original genre. Continue until the story reaches its originator, who writes the concluding paragraph. Some of the stories can then be read aloud and the students listening have to say what genre they think each paragraph is. These texts won’t be any more coherent than the usual circle writing texts, but they are really good for raising awareness of genre.

Jigsaw writing is another way of structuring collaborative writing, so that the process is clearly defined. This works well with picture stories or cartoon strips. Put students into small groups and give each group one or two pictures from the sequence. They have to write a paragraph describing what is happening or happened in their picture(s), and should have a copy each. [Incidentally, make sure everyone is using the same tense. ]Then regroup the students into larger groups so that there is someone in each group who has written about each of the pictures, and ask them to decide on the correct order of the pictures and make any changes necessary to turn their paragraphs into a coherent whole. Students can then read and compare the different versions.

If students are quite used to working together, and don’t need quite so much structure, adding an element of competition can provide some fun and motivation. This activity also comes from Learner-based Teaching. Ask the class to choose a current event or issue. Then put them into small groups (3-4) and ask them to write a short article about it together. They should try to make the article as informative as possible. Once the groups have finished the articles are passed around. Each group should look for pieces of information or facts which their group did not remember. Students can then vote for the most informative (and best written) text

What other collaborative writing activities have you used successfully?

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Filed under Teaching methodology, Working with groups, Writing

A bouquet of favourite blog posts

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For the New Year I wanted to collect together some of the blog posts which have either inspired my posts over the last year, or that would be great follow up reading. In a few weeks, I will celebrate my first blog birthday, so this post is both a bouquet in the sense of a collection of different blooms, and a big THANK YOU bouquet to all my fellow bloggers and tweeters who have made this such a fun and inspiring year!

I have used the same categories as my blog posts to organise these links, so that the connections are as clear as possible.

Different ways to use a coursebook

Two blogs with great lesson ideas that can be used to supplement a coursebook or replace it.

George Chilton’s and Neil McMillan’s Designer Lessons

Steve Muir’s Allatc (activities for advanced learners)

I love this post by Fiona Mauchline on Maccappella on the frequent problems with ‘personalised’ activities in coursebooks, and better ways to personalise.

Kevin Stein’s blog is full of different ways of doing everything. Period (or full stop as we Brits say). I particularly liked this post, You can’t learn if you’re not awake. 

In this post, Kyle Smith shares a great idea for adding a tech twist to the coursebook grammar presentation.

Differentiation

I love Ava Fruin’s thoughtful blog, Love is a better Teacher. For example, this post on Teaching a Multi-level Class.

Exploiting authentic reading materials

A great example of authentic reading materials as created by @JosetteLeBlanc’s student teachers. And there’s plenty of food for thought on the rest of the blog too.

IELTS

Great post on planning IELTS Part 1 graph questions from Sharon Turner’s EAP based blog.

Listening

There are a lot of great resources HancockMcDonald, but one thread I’m particularly interested in is the relationship between listening and pronunciation.

Planning

A thoughtful and well-informed blog, Luiz Otavio’s ELT Page has a subtitle of ‘thinking beyond the doing’; in other words he’s interested in why we do things, not just in what we do. This post is great at unpicking the process in planning a lesson with a grammar focus.

Taking a slightly different tack, this is a blog post about one teacher’s (Mike Griffin) development in terms of planning, looking with great insight at the balance between ‘fun’ and learning and the impact of finding out about the dogme approach. In his blog, ELT Rants, REviews and Reflections, Mike always gives us plenty to think about.

Also love Carol Goodey’s post on What I had planned, but not as I planned it.

This post by Hugh Dellar on the Curse of Creativity, caused a lot of controversy (no doubt entirely intentional), but I really liked the way Hugh focused on the need to consider more than whether something is a fun or creative activity, and how creativity, while an important element, should not be the tail that wags the planning dog.

I’m not a big fan of FE jargon- when I first started at an FE College in the late 90s, I managed to sit through a management meeting and understand virtually nothing because of the sheer number of impenetrable acronyms. So SMART targets isn’t something I personally find vvery helpful, and neither does Tony Gurr: Why SMART Goals are just plain dumb.

Pronunciation

Although Adrian Underhill is of course synonymous with pronunciation, I only came across his blog quite recently. Thoroughly recommended for both theory and practical ideas.

Alex Grevett, aka @breathyvowel, doesn’t just write about pronunciation, but his blog features a number of interesting posts writing about the pronunciation based courses he runs. This is the most recent.

Speaking

Hard (impossible) to pick just one post from the wonderful A-Z of ELT, by Scott Thornbury, but this one is very relevant to speaking.

Joanne Gakonga has a whole series of free webinars, mostly aimed at less experienced teachers. This is one on Encouraging your Students to Speak

I love all the DemandHigh posts, but this one on breaking the rules by not holding back on feedback until the end of a fluency activity is a particular recommendation.

Teaching methodology

David Petrie’s TEFLgeek is a favourite blog of mine, with lots of solid methodology and practical ideas. I particularly recommend ‘Is reading aloud, allowed?’

One of the things I really like about @pterolaur’s (Laura Phelps) blog, The Daily Ptefldactyl, is the descriptions of what is happening in her classroom. This post describes a lesson in which one of her teacher mentees in Borneo experimented with kind of ‘silent way’ approach.

Vocabulary

I’m not sure that Philip Kerr’s stuff gets mentioned enough. I thoroughly recommend his blog on wordlists (though he says it isn’t a blog!). At least a dozen great posts on vocabulary teaching.

Can’t have a vocabulary heading without mentioning Leo Selivan’s blog, Leoxicon

@muranava knows a lot about using corpora, and this post, How to explain a word using corpora, is a great, clear guide.

ELT Experiences is a very varied blog, with all kinds of content. This post on Using Dictionaries is my vocab related choice.

Another must-read, Chia Suan Chong’s Death by Idioms

Working with groups

Marisa Constantinides and her blog TEFLMatters probably need no introduction, but you may have missed this insightful post on group dynamics.

I love pretty much everything on the IDTI website, but this post from Chuck Sandy, on Motivating our Students, struck a particular chord.

Writing

Close up from @cerirhiannon. From a blog chockful with ideas, this is a great creative writing lesson plan. 

Chris Wilson is a prolific blogger and there is a lot of good stuff to explore on his blog, ELTSquared. This post on using wikis for process writing added a new dimension to the topic for me.

I’m sure I will keep thinking of other people and posts I should have mentioned- so, if I do, I’ll just come back and add them! Thanks again, and Happy New Year.

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Filed under Teaching methodology

Process writing: mixing it up

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As the name suggests, process writing is an approach to writing which focuses on the process rather than the end product. The argument goes that, just as writers in the ‘real’ world go through a process of editing and revising what they write, so should our students.

The typical structure for a process writing lesson might be:

1 Brainstorming ideas.

2 Plan the structure of the writing

3 Write first draft

4 Get feedback on first draft from teacher or peers (or self-evaluation)

5 Write second draft (and third if appropriate after feedback)

I think there is a lot to be said for taking a process approach to writing:

Feedback

Generally speaking, whatever colour ink we use and whatever correction code we use, we often might as well have not bothered marking written work. No-one reads what we’ve written on their essays. At best, they look to see how much we’ve written, and they might glance at any final comment.

For most students, once something has been written and handed in, it’s over: out of sight, out of mind. One of the great things about taking a process approach is that feedback doesn’t come at the end. It’s an intrinsic part of the writing process, and as such, there is a much better chance of some of it actually being taken on board.

Peer feedback is often used in a process approach, and that can be great both for developing students’ ability to criticise constructively and for giving a genuine sense that the learner is writing for an audience.

Students also develop their ability to self-evaluate, which is something they can go on to use independently. It chimes with that crucial part of being a good teacher- making yourself redundant.

Task repetition

Just as in speaking, repeating a task gives more opportunities to notice and appropriate new language. Through a process of drafting and redrafting, it is that much more likely that language will be acquired.

However, there are also some issues with process writing (at least if done in the traditional way outlined above):

Not all students (indeed not many at all in my experience) are very keen on brainstorming, planning, drafting and redrafting their work. An awful lot seem to want to chuck something down on paper and hand it over for you to sort out. Now, of course, part of our job is to encourage them to take more responsibility for learning, but it is nonetheless a downside that it’s such an uphill struggle (is that a mixed metaphor?)

Even if your students are enthusiastic, going through the process cycle is necessarily very time-consuming. There is also the question of how you manage to give detailed feedback on several drafts and actually get anything else done. It may work well in a pre-sessional context, with small groups and 5 hours of tuition a day, but maybe not so well in 2 x 90m a week or less.

Peer feedback can help with the time issue, but research shows that students tend to concentrate almost exclusively on lower order feedback, or focusing on surface errors like spelling and grammar. It’s hard to get students to be able to give feedback on content or organisation or discourse level stuff.

And last, but not least, traditional process writing doesn’t take account of the fact that the actual process of writing has changed dramatically since the advent of technology. People simply don’t write drafts in the same way anymore. See this interesting article from the Guardian, ‘Has Microsoft Word affected the way we work?’

Equally, tools such as spell check and grammar check have completely changed how writers deal with surface errors.

So, given the positives and the drawbacks of the process approach, what can we take from it, and how might we mix it up?

Keep it small scale

Process writing doesn’t have to be carried out on 250 word plus essays. You could focus on just a paragraph. This will make the stages move along more quickly, allows you to really drill down into the details, such as using a an effective topic sentence and giving reasons and examples, and the perfect paragraph produced can then be used as a model for further writing.

Change the staging

You don’t have to start with brainstorming ideas and planning. You could incorporate a feedback and redrafting stage into a lesson which takes a genre approach, or you could just get students writing straightaway (more ideas on this next post), and then get them to look again at what they’ve written and make changes.

More imaginative brainstorming and planning

Getting ideas and planning is a key part of successful writing, but how can we make it seem less of a chore?

Brainstorming an essay using a mindmap on the board is not a new idea, but try blu-tacking a Cuisenaire rod of a different colour to each bubble of the map. Then give groups a set of rods in the same colours and ask them to use the rods to make a visual plan of the essay. Somehow adding a visual and physical element to structuring the essay seems to engage many students more.

Or try moving from speaking to writing to get ideas. For example, if you want students to write a letter of complaint, try roleplaying a complaint first, or if it’s an informal letter, try it as a phonecall first. This should help learners to anticipate what their audience will want to know or how they might react, which should help with making the writing as effective as possible.

Change who gives feedback and how they give it

As well as the teacher or a partner, experiment with some different models. For example, a recent twitter discussion with @cerirhiannon started me thinking about using ‘carousels’. Put the students into small groups and pass round a piece of written work done by someone in the group (anonymous if preferred). Each group has to give a comment on an aspect which has not been covered by a previous group before passing the work onto the next group. This could be a good way of encouraging students to look beyond surface errors as discussed earlier.

Emphasize the audience

Learners are more likely to want to plan and draft if there is a real reason for writing the best possible text that they can. So using a real life context, such as those discussed in this recent post , can provide some genuine motivation.

Use technology more

Students may not have access to computers in class, but they probably will at home, so you can ask them to consciously use the correction features to make changes, and underline spelling or syntax that the computer has highlighted that they aren’t sure how to correct. You can then focus on these areas in class or individually.

Online corpora, or even google, can also be useful tools for students to check their intuitions about collocations. See this article for more indepth discussion of this.

And, using a screen capture tool, such as Jing, you could give verbal feedback on their writing rather than writing comments. There is a useful presentation from Russell Stannard on this here.

Add a sense of humour

The notion of process writing can be terribly earnest. You could work on the skills of correcting and redrafting by giving learners, for example, the worst job application letter in the world and asking them to rewrite it so that the person has at least SOME chance of being invited for interview.

Or give learners some real examples of writing from young native speakers. For example http://www.esher.surrey.sch.uk/Default.asp?page=172  and ask them to correct, revise and redraft.

While the traditional staging of a process writing lesson may be something you don’t want to do all the time, the principles behind it are something which could be used effectively in any lesson with a writing focus. You just need to mix it up a little.

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Teaching methodology, Writing

Using a genre approach for writing

Real Life Adv Pearson (1)Real Life Adv -Pearson (2)As we saw in the last post, all ‘real life’ writing is embedded in a social situation: we write for a specific purpose and audience. We can, of course, also do this in the classroom, but often we are engaged more in rehearsing skills that can later be applied outside the class.

However, the genre approach to writing still places a lot of emphasis on the context and purpose for which the writing is produced. By genre we mean different types of writing such as narrative, report, informal letter and so on. Each of these has quite specific features in terms of organisation and language, and the genre approach usually takes a model and gets the students to analyse these features, before producing something similar.

This approach undoubtedly has its roots in the product approach. A typical product writing lesson might involve:

1 Reading and analysing a model

2 Controlled writing, such as writing individual sentences using a substitution table

3 Freer or guided writing (such as  using notes given to construct one or two of the paragraphs in a letter -the rest being already given)

4 Free writing of a parallel text.

In the same way, however, that there is a big difference between PPP (presentation, practice, production) and more modern paradigms, such as Scott Thornbury’s awareness, appropriation and autonomy , there is actually the same kind of difference between product writing and genre-based approaches.

Thornbury’s ‘awareness’ is about giving students the opportunity to notice features of language, rather than having language presented to them on a plate.  In writing, as in speaking, this is about exposing learners to features of written language and setting tasks which will help them to notice the salient features.

‘Appropriation’ is about making something your own; not just repeating patterns but actually assimilating the new language into your personal store. Thornbury makes a memorable contrast between controlled practice and ‘practised control’. The difference he says is that in the latter, the students are working on controlling the language, rather than the teacher trying to control what language the students can use. This can obviously apply just as well to writing as to speaking.

‘Autonomy’ is about using the language ‘under real operating conditions.’ When looking at writing, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the writing has to have a ‘real’ audience (though it can), but that the learners have complete control over the message they want to convey. They aren’t just reproducing a model.

At the top of the post is an example from Real Life Advanced (an upper secondary coursebook) of how I have tried to take a genre approach to writing. It’s is very easily generalizable to any genre of writing or level.

1 Through a lead-in discussion and a few questions, students first deal with the meaning of the text. It’s a travel anecdote or narrative.

2 Next the learners look at how the text is structured. This follows Labov’s Standard Western Narrative, and is a useful little structure to learn as a lot of different kinds of narratives (such as excuses, examples of past experience you might give at a job interview and so on will follow the same basic stages)

There are also some questions about the tenses used. This is something which students focused on earlier in the unit, so, as well as fleshing out the narrative structure, it acts as a review.

3 Then we start to ‘unpack’ some of the language in the text. ( Incidentally, I would highly recommend Scott Thornbury’s video on ‘unpacking a text’) Here we’re focusing on adverbs. Students compare the examples of adverbs they can find in the text with the rules and examples in the box.

4 The next exercise is intended to give students the opportunity to get some control over the language, putting the rules into action. They aren’t just drilling correct sentences; they’re having to think about how to use the language correctly and appropriately.

5 The learners then prepare to write their own story. They are encouraged to use the same structure, but the content is personal to them and their experiences or knowledge. You may notice that there are prompt questions referring to colours and adjectives used to describe the background, and to what the characters say. These points again refer back to previous activities in the unit (on adjectives and verbs of speaking – mumbled, whispered), providing the opportunity, or ‘nudge’, for students to use this language again in a different context.

Clearly this kind of approach can be used for any kind of text. The key stages are:

1 Read the ‘model’ for meaning first, don’t just see it as a model, but as a piece of communication.

2 Focus on the organisation. Different genres of texts have different organising principles. Research or think about how this genre of writing usually starts and finishes. Is the content in any particular order? For example, an IELTS Part 1 Writing Task, describing a graph, usually begins by stating what the graph shows, then may provide an overview before detailing the key pieces of information (or the overview may come at the end). You could get students to look at examples and draw flow charts of how they perceive the organisation.

3 ‘Unpack’ the language. You can choose some language which seems particularly relevant to the task or you might use corpora to identify language on which to focus. Putting several texts of the genre you want your students to learn to write into a text based concordance, such as that at www.lextutor.ca should give you some useful information about the kind of language students could usefully be encouraged to notice.

4 Provide practice to help students gain more control of the language

5 Help students to put together what they have noticed to help them write their own text. Make sure that the text is more than just reproducing a model, ideally that it has some personal meaning. For example, in the IELTS text type mentioned above, perhaps they could write up the results of their own surveys?

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, IELTS, Planning, Teaching methodology, Writing

‘Real world’ writing activities

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‘We don’t just ‘read’ and ‘write’: we always read and write something for a particular purpose, in a particular way, in a particular time and place.’

David Barton

Outside the classroom, any writing our learners do will have a specific purpose and context. Inside the classroom, by definition, any writing is likely to be more simply for the sake of developing skills and language, and displaying those skills.

However, the difference between ‘real’ writing and display writing isn’t a binary distinction; it’s more of a continuum. Our job, as teachers, is to bring the two ends of the spectrum closer together, and help students to see the links.

How much do you know about the purposes for which your learners need to (or aspire to) write in English?

Obviously, if your learners are in an ESE (English-speaking environment), they are likely to have many pressing needs, such as form filling, work-related paper-work, emails, notes to school and so on. There are literally endless ways in which these learners can carry out real-world writing tasks, including writing to local papers, to their MPs and so on. Even in NESE contexts, learners may well need to use written English for work, especially with the growth of the internet and the increased tendency to communicate in writing.

For younger learners and most General English learners in NESE contexts, however, they may not have a current need to write in English at all, but it is still important for writing to be clearly contextualised, and have an audience. We don’t speak without any sense of who we are speaking to, and neither should we write in that way.

That said, I don’t believe that all classroom writing activities have to connect directly to the real world. The important thing is that the activity has a significance or personal value for the learners and that they know why they’re doing it. In the next few blog posts, I’d like to look more closely at some different ways to support learners in developing their writing skills, looking at genre-based and process-based approaches. All of these will, of course, have a purpose and an audience, but not necessarily an actual, immediate real-world one.

Writing for the public can, however, be extremely motivating. Below are some ideas to try, which would work with learners not in an ESE. Feel free to add anything else you’ve tried in the comments, it would be great to build up as long a list as possible:

  •  Writing to a favourite author. Many authors now have blog pages or other ways in which they can be contacted. Learners could choose their own author (which might be someone they have only read in translation), or this could be part of a class extended reading project.
  • Writing a review of a product, film or book on a website. From being a rather unnatural task, writing a review is now something that many people do regularly on sites such as Amazon.
  • Writing on behalf on victims of human rights abuse. Assuming this is appropriate in your context, this is a very real-world writing activity and could really make a difference in the world. See the Amnesty website  where you will find sample letters and advice.
  • Writing fiction for the internet. How about writing an 140 character story for Twitter [#140novel]? Or use one of the many websites where you can publish short stories, such as www.booksie.com? For younger learners, try Littlebirdtales,  where learners can create a picture story which is then emailed to specific friends and family, rather than being open to the whole internet. Or, a personal favourite, www.futureme.org.  On this site, people write letters to themselves to be delivered on a specific date in the future. Still a real audience….
  • Comments on news articles and opinion pieces. Most newspapers now have online version where readers can comment. A particularly good source is the BBC, which asks specifically for comments in the Have your Say section. For example, this article and comments on ‘Invisibility cloaks: will we ever really have them?’

 

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Mindfulness for students (with no tibetan bells or yoga)

In my previous post I gave a brief overview of what I think mindfulness is, and how it can be beneficial for teachers. As I think it can be beneficial for everyone, obviously, there are applications for students as well.

While I do believe that our remit as teachers can be wider than simply teaching language, I don’t think it is the teacher’s role to therapise the students, nor are most teachers in any way trained or prepared for this. That said, most teachers don’t have a problem with encouraging students to develop self-evaluation skills, and mindfulness can be seen as simply an extension of this.

Perhaps the central focus of mindfulness is the focus on the present moment. This doesn’t mean that you somehow aren’t allowed to think about what’s just happened or about to happen, but that you shouldn’t be so caught up in the past or future that you aren’t really ‘here’. So an activity where you describe a memory is absolutely fine; thinking about what you’re going to have for tea tonight while your partner talks to you about their memory, not so much.

Clearly, it is in the interests of learning for students to be fully present in the classroom, so how could this be facilitated?

Start the class right

In my last post, I mentioned the importance of starting the day right. The same principles can be applied to a class. It’s really important to start the class with everyone fully focused. Some ideas for facilitating this, from Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness

–          For young learners, start with a song or jazz chant or clapping game.

–          Take out something really interesting to look at and gradually pull in everyone’s attention

–          Read something really interesting aloud

–          Start with a riddle or puzzle

–          If learners are engaged in discussing something as they come into class, start there.

[And there was another idea involving using a Tibetan bell….but I promised EBEFL that I wouldn’t mention anything like that ;)]

Awareness

In this excellent post, Kevin Stein writes about keeping a real time journal- a reflective tool  where he jots down notes about what is actually happening in the class as it happens. This helps him to make decisions about what to do next- in essence it’s a tool for focusing on the present.

The same kind of activity can work very well for students, and is a good short activity for early finishers. Rather than drifting off, ask them to write a few sentences about what they notice happening in the classroom and/or about what they are feeling. This might give you an insight into the class or the student from a different angle- unless the student wants to keep what they have written private.

Or you could occasionally carry out more extended noticing tasks. For example, the dogme activity, the Sounds of Silence, from Teaching Unplugged, where the class simply listens in silence for one minute to whatever is happening around them (open the windows or door) and then discusses what they heard.

A classic mindfulness activity (originating, I think, with Jon Kabat-Zinn)  is to eat a raisin, with complete attention. For example:

Pick up a raisin and hold it in the palm of your hand. Look at it. Examine it. Describe the raisin. What does it look like? What color is it? How would you describe the texture? Now, feel the raisin in the palm of your hand. What does it feel like against your skin? Pick it up with your other hand. What does it feel like in your fingers? Is it slimy? Rough? Smooth? Soft? Hard? Squeeze it softly. What do you feel? Smell the raisin. Describe how it smells. Put the raisin in your mouth, but do not eat it. What does it feel like on your tongue? What does the texture feel like now? How does it taste? How does the taste compare to the way it smelled? Move it around in your mouth and notice every aspect of the raisin. Bite the raisin and think about what you taste. Now how does the raisin feel in your mouth? Finish chewing and eat the raisin. How did it taste? Describe the experience of the raisin.

This can work really well in class-students listen, carry out the activity and then write about the experience. Of course, you could do it with any activity- not just eating a raisin!

Dialogic teaching

Any approach, such as Dogme, where the emphasis is on real-time communication between the people in the class, will naturally promote being in the present (even if you’re talking about past experiences). If students are fully involved and engaged, they are present.

In this way, most teachers will, of course, already be promoting mindfulness with their students, and will be in a mindful state themselves whenever they are completely engaged and ‘in the flow’.

However, even in this kind of dialogue, we are not always in the present. Tim Lott puts this very well in a recent Guardian article:

In our western relationship with time, in which we compulsively pick over the past in order to learn lessons from it, and then project into a hypothetical future in which those lessons can be applied, the present moment has been compressed to a tiny sliver on the clock face between a vast past and an infinite future. Zen, more than anything else, is about reclaiming and expanding the present moment.

We talk about ‘teachable moments’, and it is my experience that the more fully engaged people are, the more teachable moments appear. So, conversation with students can, I believe, be taken deeper, and made more memorable, by asking questions which bring students back to now.

  • How do you know that is true?
  • Can you think of any situations in which that might not be true?
  • Is there another way to see that?

This doesn’t mean that you are saying that what they believe isn’t true, by the way, just that you are getting them to think about it again, from a fresh viewpoint.

Emotional response

A central part of awareness is being aware of emotions and feelings. Fiona Mauchline recently wrote a wonderful blog post about getting in touch with emotions as a way of making language more memorable.

We learn language when it becomes ‘salient’ for us, and an emotional response is a big part of that. A lesson on what makes you happy, by @designer lessons, had a profound effect on a class I taught, both emotionally and in terms of the language they seemed to retain.

Similarly, you could have a lesson about what things make people feel angry (bearing in mind the questions under dialogic teaching above).

In mindfulness, however, there is an important distinction between being aware of emotions, and believing that the emotion IS you. Mindfulness works on recognising the emotion, accepting that you’re experiencing it (rather than suppressing it), but seeing it as a passing event, like feeling hot or cold. They’re just sensations in the moment, and will pass.

The element of surprise

You can’t learn if you’re not awake , said Kevn Stein in another blog post you should check out. He was talking about introducing elements of surprise or challenge to wake students up. Mindfulness, far from being a passive kind of drifting off, is all about being awake, really awake.

So, ultimately, anything which (gently) pulls students (and teacher) awake and in touch with what is actually happening right now, is mindfulness. With this in mind, I’d argue that it’s easy to see how mindfulness applies to the classroom, as much as any other part of life.

For Phil Longwell talking about mindfulness on the #ELTchat podcast see http://eltchatpodcast.podomatic.com/

If you’re interested in mindfulness, check out my new website, www.life-resourceful.com


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Mindfulness for teachers

What mindfulness is (and is not)

Mindfulness is a term that is becoming increasingly familiar to many people, but it is still not that clear to many, I think, what exactly it means. Mindfulness isn’t about drifting off into your inner world; it’s more about being fully conscious, really aware of what we’re doing and feeling, right now.

Most of us spend most of our time only dimly aware of what’s happening for us right now. We are usually too busy making future plans, worrying about stuff, remembering things and reacting to situations based on what we think we’ve learnt in the past.  Our mind is crowded out with all sorts of stuff.

However, mindfulness isn’t about having an empty mind; it’s about being focused.

Why mindfulness for teachers?

For many people, myself included, one of the great attractions of teaching is that it can be so absorbing that I often find myself in a state of what Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’. When we are totally present in the classroom (or anywhere else), time goes very quickly and we are really in a state of heightened awareness, feeling alert and alive. Communication flows easily between us and others and everyone seems to be really focused on the experience of learning. This is a very enjoyable form of mindfulness, and it can be encouraged by developing our own mindfulness practice outside the classroom.

Mindfulness , flow, feeling connected  is not so much something that we have to acquire, as something which is always there, but that we tend to be very good at blocking out through anxiety, fear, anger, mind-chatter, judgements and so on.

The more we practice mindfulness, the easier it is to connect to that peaceful place when we’re under pressure, students are playing up, the lesson plan isn’t working and so on.

Mindfulness helps us to be able to respond to a difficult situation calmly, rather than a knee-jerk reaction of feeling angry with ourselves or the students, or feeling that we’re not good enough or whatever our particular ‘favourite’ reaction might be.

Rather than feeling exhausted and drained at the end of a class, we’ll feel energised and alive (and so will the students).

Techniques to develop mindfulness

A key personal discovery is how important it is to start the day right. That doesn’t mean you can’t get things back on track, but it seems to really help to start by getting into the right frame of mind. How you do this is a matter of individual choice, of course: meditation, a brisk walk taking full notice of nature around you or simply setting your intention for the day- reminding yourself to stay in touch with what’s actually happening, take proper breaks, eat well, or to be kinder to yourself etc.

Whenever you remember (and don’t beat yourself up for forgetting, because you will most of the time), check in with what’s actually happening, and how you are feeling. When those feelings are negative, don’t deny or suppress them- just notice them and accept them (rather than telling yourself you shouldn’t feel that way), and most of the time they’ll just fade away. When they don’t, you can put them to one side until later and then try a bit of pillow bashing, talking stuff through, writing it all down and so on. But remember that your thoughts aren’t necessarily true- they’re just thoughts. This may help you not to get too caught up in the drama of it all.

Every so often (decide when in advance), take a few minutes to just breathe and become aware. I like to go for a short walk outside.

There are several excellent books on developing mindfulness which I would recommend for developing your own practice:

Mindful teaching and teaching mindfulness – Deborah R. Schoeberlein

Mindfulness: a practical guide -Mark Williams and Danny Penman

Mindfulness for beginners: Jon Kabat-Zinn

Any of these books will guide you through exercises designed to help build your inner resilience, dissipate stress, help you to be in the ‘flow’, help you deal with difficult situations and students and generally greatly improve your quality of life.

In my next post, I’d like to look at how you can encourage mindfulness from your students- in ways that won’t feel too different from what you already do, but that may make a difference to the quality of learning.

Other blog posts on mindfulness related topics:

http://tpstefltravels.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/mindfulness-elt-chat-summary.html

http://itdi.pro/blog/2012/05/14/working-with-difficult-students-chuck-sandy/

http://malingual.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/a-note-on-mindfulness.html

If you’re interested in mindfulness, check out my new website, www.life-resourceful.com

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Task repetition: helping students to improve accuracy,repertoire and fluency

I am very far from being a fluent Polish speaker. In fact, after four years of hard study and living in the country, I was still probably only about B2 level. However, if you happened to hear me chatting to a taxi driver in Polish, you’d probably conclude I was pretty fluent.

I was very good indeed at the basic chitchat of where are you from, how long have you been in Poland, what do you think about Poland and so on. And the reason I became so fluent (in this context)? ….I caught a lot of taxis.

In other words, I had plenty of opportunity for task repetition. In language learning terms, task repetition is a term most often related to task-based learning. Perhaps one of the key articles about this is Martin Bygate’s Effects of task repetition: appraising the developing language of learners. In this article, Bygate suggests several benefits to getting learners to repeat a task:

  •  More fluency in terms of pausing and speed (less need to plan as we speak)
  • Fewer false starts and self corrections
  • Fewer errors

These reasons seem fairly self-evident, and you could say exactly the same things about drilling a dialogue. However, while I also think there are benefits in simply repeating or drilling, task repetition is about more than this. Bygate suggests that once the speaker is more familiar with the content, this frees them up to not simply make fewer errors or speak more quickly, but to actually pay more attention to how they formulate their meaning.

In this article, Bygate demonstrated (admittedly with a small sample), that repeating a simple speaking task (in this case describing a film), without any input or feedback, still led to the learner producing more appropriate and more complex language. They improved in terms of accuracy, repertoire and fluency.

Since then, further research has confirmed that task repetition does indeed have a positive effect on complexity and fluency, though some feel that learners may also need feedback on the first task (instinctively, I would tend to agree with this).

So, how can we start to build in more task repetition without boring students? The first thing to say, perhaps, is that I think the idea that repeating a task is boring, may well be a projection from the teacher. If a student is really engaged in a task, and struggling (in a good way) with getting meaning across, it won’t be boring, but satisfying. See this article  for a piece of research which set out to prove this.

In repeating speaking activities, I would suggest:

–      Play about with giving feedback in between repetitions. Sometimes you could give immediate feedback, with examples you have noted while monitoring. Sometimes you could make notes then use these notes to plan a short teaching session in another lesson, before a task is repeated. Sometimes the feedback could be self-evaluation (especially if students are able to record themselves) or peer feedback.

–      Try repeating the task at different time intervals (immediately, next lesson, next week, next month) and see what difference it makes. Again, recording both versions can be very helpful so that students themselves can be helped to notice improvements.

–      Change the audience for the task. This could just be telling the story again to a new partner (which makes it more genuinely communicative), or it could be moving from 1-2-1 to speaking to a larger group, or from speaking to a live group to recording the talk (using Vocaroo or just a mobile phone).

–      Change the task slightly. Choose a new task which has enough parallels in terms of structure and likely language for students to benefit from repetition, but enough difference to keep up the interest. For example, asking students to retell a narrative from the point of view of a different person involved in the story (same events, different perspective)

And, of course, task repetition does not always have to be about speaking. All the above points could equally well apply to writing. We have more time available to process when writing, so combining writing and speaking can work very well too. First students tell and then they write- or vice versa.

And it can even apply to receptive skills work. See this post, for example, on repeated reading.

Please feel free to add other task repetition ideas- I’m sure the possibilities are endless.


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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Speaking, Teaching methodology, Vocabulary

To read better, improve your pronunciation?

To read better, improve your pronunciation….

This statement jumped out at me recently, from an excellent post by Robin Walker on Pronunciation for YLs. He was reporting from a talk by Catherine Walter at IATEFL 2008, and reading this (perhaps surprising) statement sent me off to find her original research.

In her article Phonology in second language reading: not an optional extra, Walter questions the idea that the skill of reading is something which needs to be taught to second language learners. She argues that successful L1 readers already possess the cognitive skills needed to build a mental structure or representation, which is, in fact, what we mean by ‘comprehension.’ According to Walter, comprehension isn’t actually a linguistic skill, so it’s fruitless to talk about transferring it from L1 to L2.

So why are some learners competent at reading in L1, but struggle with reading in L2? Obviously, lack of linguistic knowledge plays a part. Fascinatingly, though, Walter cites a study (Robertson et al 2000)* which used MRI scanning to show that sentence comprehension and comprehension of a text as a whole take place on different sides of the brain.

Walter doesn’t mention this, but, of course, there has been a lot of speculation about left brain and right brain thinking. Interestingly, sentence level comprehension, or decoding, used the left frontal lobe (associated with analytical, logical processing) and text comprehension uses the right frontal lobe (associated with intuition).

So a learner may have effective (non-linguistic) comprehension skills, and even be able to decode L2 sentences, but still struggle. Why?

According to Walter, it may be to do with how we use our working memories. Part of the working memory is something called the phonological loop:

‘a short-term memory mechanism that stores information in phonological form and automatically rehearses that information by unconscious sub- vocalisation.’ (Walter 2008)

In other words, as we listen, we automatically ‘record’ the last two seconds of what we hear in the memory, like a little Dictaphone. It’s why we can repeat back what we have just heard, even if we weren’t really listening properly to the speaker.

There is also evidence that we do exactly the same thing as we read- that we also sub-vocalise and record the sound of what we are reading. We don’t see it, we hear it.  At least, this is true for those of us with L1s that are alphabetic (there is some evidence that learners with non-alphabetic L1s, may use more visual representations).

However, if our phonological representations of what we have just read are unreliable, we may find it difficult to associate these sounds with meanings, and thus find it difficult to keep meaning in our short term memory. This, in turn, will make it harder for us to carry out meaning building processes on the text as a whole.

Walter’s research in this paper concludes that unless learners are also poor at comprehension in L1, we would be better off teaching them to improve how they ‘mentally represent spoken language’ than teaching comprehension skills.

Some suggestions:

As much exposure as possible to the spoken language- so lots of listening and watching videos in English.

Listening while reading – hearing the spoken version while reading a text. This could mean using sub-titles, or following a transcript while listening, or listening to an audio version of a written text while reading. I would suggest that these don’t have to be instead of our usual listening or reading activities (I’m not quite ready to throw out more traditional reading and listening procedures), but as a follow up.

And finally, explicit focus on features of pronunciation, such as minimal pairs work , and focus on word stress and on how words change in the stream of speech . This kind of work will help learners to develop a more reliable repertoire of L2 sounds, which, Walter suggests, could also help them to hold what they are reading more efficiently in their short term memory, which in turn will greatly help with building up the meaning of the text.

And even if this isn’t the case, it will certainly help with developing fluency in speaking and confidence in listening, so what have we got to lose?


 * Robertson, D. A., Gernsbacher, M. A., Guidotti, S. J., Robertson, R. R. W., Irwin, W.,Mock, B. J., et al. (2000). Functional neuroanatomy of the cognitive process of mapping during discourse comprehension.

Psychological Science, 11, 255–260

 

 

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Pronunciation, Teaching methodology